Tag Archives: what if

26 pages – graphic novel – design fiction

Unfortunately, they are not yet available to view. I need to complete 4 more spreads to end Chapter 1. At that point I need to put together a Kickstarter project and see if I can get some support to complete the remaining 200-odd pages (all in CG). Most of the feedback from the “editorial staff” of friends and family has been positive with lots of good suggestions. I also need to put in some work on the books web site, and a way of showcasing the uber-hi-res images for the Chapter 1 preview which will come with the Kickstarter launch.

I recently posted one of those signs you see on message boards with the little tear-off tabs around the art/design building on campus looking for a Chinese translator. As nifty as Google Translator is, it really doesn’t give you context which is all-important in Chinese (and most other languages for that matter). As you know, my graphic novel takes place in Hong Kong, about 100 years from now when most of the globe is governed by China, New Asia, as it is called then. As is the case today, we find a mix of English and Chinese throughout the society and I want my Chinese to be as accurate and believable as possible. After a couple of weeks, I finally got a student volunteer (he will get a signed copy of the book and credit in the back) to do a sanity check on my signs and use of the language. Sadly, based upon Linxiao’s assessment I had to go back and make some changes. Another reason that pages are not yet ready for prime time.

All of this is texture of course, background to add believability and context.

Other notes: On the design fiction front, I just got word that the paper I submitted to the World Future Society’s scholarly journal World Future Review, has been accepted, edited and will be published in the group’s upcoming special conference edition that will be distributed at the WFS conference in Toronto, later this summer.

Meanwhile, I am working away on my presentation to the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels (RMCCGN) and it looks like I’m coming in right around 20 minutes. Now, I’m attending to the visuals. The topic is the same as the WFS paper: When designers ask, “What if?”

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Why design fiction is design research—or should be.

Something of a continuation from my last post…

There’s no question that designers are broadening their contributions beyond the conventional practices of making things, spaces and visuals. Some “designers” are moving into the fringes where, we find more “wicked problems”, ones that involve purpose and society, economics and models for sustainability. I see design fiction as applicable to all of these as a method of design research and as a potentially important means of anticipating and planning.

There are scholars out there who write long papers and have lengthy discussions on what constitutes design research. Mostly, when I read them my head hurts but not always. I was reading a [rather old] discussion on Portigal’s site and this comment by Christopher Fahey caught my attention: “Design research doesn’t care about the economic and emotional factors going into whether or not a consumer can be compelled to buy a product, focusing only on how the product is used — which can include emotional and even economic factors. Design research is not concerned with “conversion.” Design fiction fits nicely here, but design research is big territory, so I’m sure that while the idea of designing things into the fabric of a speculative culture doesn’t meet all the criteria, in this instance it does. Because design fiction clearly exists outside of what Bleecker refers to as the “sweet-spot” of [Dubberly’s Venn diagram] the desirable, profitable, and possible, it is free to explore in the fringes of the maybe or the “what if?” These might include ideas like desirable and profitable, but not yet possible, or almost possible—possibly even just plausible [Bleecker].

There is already activity in design research that follows a similar track. “…design and design research share with engineering a fundamental interest in focusing on the world as it could be, on the imagination and realization of possible futures, as well as on the disclosure of new worlds. This implies a reflection of the contingencies of our world today, and of the practices for creating, imagining, and materializing new worlds” (Grand & Wiedmer, 2010, p2.).

“What if?”, can be an effective tool in design thinking. A simple question that erases conventional boundaries that can begin as simply as, “What if we do…?”, “What if we don’t…?”, “What if it does…?”, or “What if it doesn’t…?” can often start a journey onto innovative pathways, not always productive, but often yielding unexpected outcomes.

It could be argued that this type of thinking might find its greatest advantage beyond design, perhaps in politics, government, medicine or technology where solutions that seem, at first, universally positive, result in unexpected and unintended consequences. It seems to me that this is precisely the underpinning that we find in many science fiction narratives with dystopian futures.

In Allenby and Sarewitz’s The Techno-Human Condition, they identify an interesting characteristic that plagues designers (and the rest of us, too). We tend to see everything as a problem to be solved, when it is actually a condition to be acknowledged. The authors describe an approach that does not expect, “fundamental changes in human nature, or redemption through technology. (160)” As they mount their case, “Our problem is that we want to turn everything into a problem that can be solve, when those problems are in fact conditions…” This could include everything from climate change, to greed, spirituality, religious cultures, good, evil and their fluid interpretations. But these very characteristics of the argument they say are symptomatic of a, “world unable (and perhaps increasingly unable) to come to grips with what it does to itself. (160)”

Design fiction can contribute here, because it plays in a land of futuristic ethnography. It puts us in a different culture, (even if it’s just the culture of the next 20 minutes), and of the people mixed up in that culture. It becomes a story and gives legibility to options, examines scenarios and acknowledges conditions in the process. It can be a strong contribution, maybe even a critical step in analyzing what we make next.



Allenby, Braden & Sarewitz, Daniel. The Techno-Human Condition. MIT Press, Cambridge. 2011

Grand, Simon; Wiedmer, Martin. “Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World”. University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland.


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Design Fiction comes to Denver Literary Con

I have been honored with an invitation to present to the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, June 13-15, 2012. Quoting from their web site, the RMCCGN, “is a new literary conference devoted solely to the scholarly study and teaching of the sequential arts. What sets this conference apart from others is its unique mission to combine an educational classroom initiative with the benefits of theoretical and critical discourse. RMCCGN is being held in conjunction with the newly emerging Denver Comic Con at the top-rated Colorado Convention Center, June 15-17 2012.” Also presenting are Charles Hatfield and keynote speaker Scott McCloud, among others.

I suppose that my talk will have to address what design fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, and CG has to do with anything. I anticipate setting the stage with the expanding role of the designer and the unique aspects of design thinking. Then I will have to situate this idea of design fiction. Here, (though I have recently discovered a great masters thesis from Jonathan Resnick that provides the best overview of the flavors of design fiction that I have seen to date), I will be focusing on my alignment with the thinking of Bleecker and Sterling on the subject. As Bleecker states (2011),  “… we furnish the fictional spaces of tomorrow with objects and ideas that at the same time chronicle the contradictions, inconsistencies, flaws and frailties of the everyday [offering] a distanced view from which to survey the consequences of various social, environmental and technological scenarios.”


Of course, as these things go, my thesis, hence the paper submitted to RMCCGN, is a bit of a hybrid on this idea. My project deals with some deliberate mixing of narrative construction, together with a process of design research, and some “making things” at least as far as visual prototypes are concerned.

Some key points to the project: (If you’ve read the blog in the past, you’ll see some evolution here.)

■ step 1 is creating the fiction. Using a type of design research that pulls on threads of technology, conditions and wildcards, the process of constructing the science fiction quickly cascades into a host of new questions and possible ramifications. The story builds from there.

■ design fiction weaves itself into the mix because through it, idea-objects gain knowledge mass and a sense of credibility. [Bleecker]. They become diegetic prototypes [Kirby]; invisible collaborators with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now.

■ the graphic novel tells the story in a visual sense forcing prototypes into the visual realm. Design fiction then encourages us to look at how the thing is used, how it blends into the everyday, how it affects or changes the user, the society, the culture. Plus, unlike a film, it provides the opportunity to linger and study what you’re seeing.

■ the choice of CG for visualization likewise insists on “building” these props, giving them form, material and function.

Overall, the project is an examination of the interdependency of things. This is an important consideration for designers and decision-makers poised on the precipice of invasive human enhancement, technological replication, genetic engineering, etcetera, and etcetera. We need to be playing with scenarios. Our inability to anticipate or fathom the interdependencies of innovation, humanity, and the “unintended” are at the core center of a, “world unable (and perhaps increasingly unable) to come to grips with what it does to itself.(Allenby & Sarewitz, 2011, 160)”


Bleecker, Julian. http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/2011/10/26/thrilling-wonder-stories-london-edition/) 26 October, 11

Allenby, Braden & Sarewitz, Daniel. The Techno-Human Condition. MIT Press, Cambridge. 2011

Kirby, David A. . Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-World Technological Development. Social Studies of Science 40/1 (February 2010) 41–70.


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Design and culture

On the more “scholarly” side of things, I’ve touched on the interplay of design and culture in previous posts. Here are some more direct thoughts on the subject.

The purposeful, systematic and creative activities that surround the work of design are based on our cultural requirements. They have changed over time. The stresses and requirements of the information age are profoundly different from the industrial age, or an agrarian society. Along with that, our human story has changed. What we find meaningful and our expectations for design have changed with that culture. Design and culture are, in fact, inextricably woven together constantly evolving producing new artifacts, data, entertainment, transportation, medicine, governments and behaviors to name a few. This interdependency between design and culture continues to evolve leaving a history from whence we can pluck an artifact or inventive solution to discover the design narrative, and the cultural influences that launched it into existence.

This design-culture universe continues to expand and inform our lives, our design and our narrative. The relationship is significant. What we design affects the culture. Technology can initiate formidable societal changes. Do these developments follow some cosmic algorithm? Are they purely reactionary to time and economic urgency? Or, do we have a choice about what can and should be made?

Pulling the thread on this idea, there is the connective relevance beyond my graphic novel project and into design practice and the way we think as designers. Are we too bound up in the client’s parameters, or the aesthetic edge? Does the world need a better looking can opener? What about a can that doesn’t need a can opener?

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What happens when designers ask, “What if?”


If you follow this blog then you know that, last year I decided to leave my corporate job and a 30 year career as a professional design practitioner and go back to school. There were a lot of motivating factors, but most exciting was the idea of pursuing what happens when design is integrated on the “epic” level. By that I mean, when design is firing on all cylinders, not just great communications or great product design, but holistically woven into every aspect of a company. Whether, in reality, they fit this description, Apple is the company that comes to mind.

As I settled into academia, I began to hone in on a thesis that would embrace the notion of epic design. Pull this thread with me…


Design and culture

It doesn’t  take a great deal of thought to acknowledge that culture produces design and, in turn, design influences culture. Invention, information, entertainment, transportation, medicine, you name it, they’re all floating in a soup that produces a culture of expectation and more invention. The cycle repeats.


Design and narrative

Reach into the soup and pull out one of those ingredients and you will also find a story attached to it. Where did it come from? Why did it take this form? How did it come to be? What were the conflicts? Who was involved? When did it happen? All of these combine into some kind of story narrative. Ultimately, everyone and everything has an origination story. At the very least there is a master narrative that gives context to us and all the things that surround us.



How might a designer explore this design-culture relationship in an unfettered exercise of creativity? How often does the designer sit down and ask, “what if?”

What can we learn from examining the design-culture relationship in the purity of the hypothetical. I decided that the answer was fiction: to create a story in the future where everything has changed except for the human condition, and to produce this work in a visual prototype — a graphic novel.


The discussion

That’s the premise. I have a particular interest in what designers think, but also anyone  anyone who creates future narratives, graphic novels, comics, movies, art, but also anyone who thinks about what could or should happen next? How does a movie director or screenwriter come at it? A novelist? A futurist? A photographer? A production designer? A game designer? How would you approach it in any profession? What do you think of this exercise? Are you already doing it? Take a few minutes and think about it. How can creativity contribute to future scenarios and what do we take away?


I invite you to join the discussion. Some suggestions: Leave a simple comment, a paragraph, a paper, a link to further study or related topics. Leave your comments below and let’s see where this leads.


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